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The Good Life

Beating Blackjack in the 21st Century

Clever card counter Colin Jones not only fleeces the casinos, he teaches others how to do it as well
By Michael Kaplan | From Charles Barkley, March/April 2020
Beating Blackjack in the 21st Century
Illustration/Taylor Callery

Most every successful person has an ah-ha moment, an epiphany that alters the trajectory of what he does and changes his life for the better. Colin Jones, now 39, experienced his lightning-burst of inspiration about 15 years ago at a blackjack table in a casino in Las Vegas.

He was already an adept card counter and played on a team with other sharp advantage players. Like most people in the game, they highly valued their ability to ply their trade without getting booted by casinos that hate the idea of people playing any game at an advantage. In order to maintain that, they played cautiously in Vegas with what is known as cover: small gambits designed to keep casino personnel from realizing that the guy with a big pile of chips won them by means other than luck.

But cover costs money. It means doing things that are less than optimal—like maybe hitting a 16 at the wrong time or not doubling 10 against a dealer’s 10 when the count warrants it. Nevertheless, even while giving a little bit back, Jones was having a hell of a run. In fact, he was ahead by $25,000 over the course of his session. Aware that he would have won even more if he had taken full advantage of the game, Jones wasn’t complaining.

colin jones

Not until he received something to complain about: Attention from a casino employee who wanted to have a word. “He backed me off,” Jones remembers, using card-counter parlance for being told that he can play any game in the casino but he cannot play blackjack. “I had used the full, ultimate gamut of everything I was supposed to do to make me last forever. I even ordered a Scotch”—card counters tend not to drink when they play. “But I got backed off anyway. That was when I came to a realization. Why not make the most of it?”

This point is a cornerstone of his approach to the game, a central tenet of his new book, The 21st-Century Card Counter, and the way that blackjack pros extract money from the game these days. “I’ve had people on my show who’ve made a million dollars playing blackjack,” says Richard Munchkin, co-host of the radio show “Gambling with an Edge” and a successful advantage player in his own right. “They spread enormously, hide nothing and play until they get thrown out. They may last 30 minutes or they may last three weeks, but they play outside of Vegas—where casinos are very quick to catch counters—and keep moving. I heard about one guy at a casino far from Vegas who lasted weeks and won a million dollars before getting tossed.”

The style, which Jones and others adapted more than created, is as 2020 as a new Tesla. As Munchkin emphasizes, it’s a balls-to-the-wall approach that must be employed in the current casino environment. “Blackjack has become a more aggressive game,” Jones says. “There’s no longer a Vegas high-limit room act for people looking to get over on casinos. It’s all about attacking tables and trying to take down games without a lot of subtlety. Playing with cover generally doesn’t work anymore. There aren’t as many good games [games with rules that enhance advantages for players] and you have to go full-on to get the money.”

Jones knows from where he speaks. He has personally taken some $600,000 out of casinos, which, from the perspective of gaming executives, is bad enough. But, for them, the news gets even worse. Increasing his threat exponentially, Jones has trained more than 2,000 players to do the same thing. He manages this through his Blackjack Apprenticeship education program, which teaches card-counting via live classes and online tutorials. Running since 2008, it fosters a community where people share advice and gain much-needed emotional support while playing a game with only a two-percent advantage that can result in long losing streaks. “If someone announces that he’s coming to my town, I’ll tell him which casino to play last,” says Jones. “That’s the one that will flyer you if they see you counting cards.” In a world where instructors claim that they can teach you to overcome insurmountable odds and help you to make money at sports betting by selling you picks, Jones ranks among a handful of honest operators. He really does train students to beat blackjack in its current state.

closeup of cards

One old-school rule he encourages breaking is that you should not jump your bets. A previous generation of card counters used to emphasize that if the count suddenly goes through the roof and the game becomes significantly more advantageous, you should not necessarily move up your bets with it. Rather, you should slowly chip-up by allowing your winning bets to ride. The fear is that casino bosses will recognize the sudden rise in action, find it suspicious and realize that you are counting. “Not jumping your bet up or dramatically bringing your bet down, when appropriate, those are both really expensive,” he says. “I ran the numbers on those situations.”

While Jones, a father of six, plays less than he used to, he does keep himself on the circuit. “Last year, a buddy and I went to check out a town where we heard the casinos were pretty good and pretty tolerant,” he says. “The games were not the best, but we made up for it by going from table minimum of $15 to two-by-300 [slang for playing two spots of $300 each]. We stayed for a few days and played six casinos. It was a good trip.”

A couple of Blackjack Apprenticeship guys took it further: “They camped out there for six months.”

Part of what makes this aggressive approach so viable is the fact that some 30 states across America have legal casinos. Many of them are not aligned with one another and they don’t necessarily share information about the people who have been backed off. “They kick you out. You know it’s going to happen and when it does, you move on. You go somewhere else to play,” Jones says. “Blackjack is not going away any time soon and neither are the people who count cards.”

dealing

It’s a Friday afternoon in November at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Freshly arrived guests roll bags of golf clubs across the casino floor, heading up to their rooms. A poker tournament is in progress and a flurry of players chant for a six to hit at the craps table. Positioned between two blackjack games, appearing completely harmless, Jones eyeballs the action.

Standing tall and looking innocent, the Born Again Christian family-man takes in the proceedings as if he is simply curious to see how the game gets played. At this moment, he surely ranks among the most threatening people in the casino, but, just from glancing at him, you’d never know it.

Of course, Jones is not at Aria simply to observe mid-afternoon blackjack. He’s actually watching the cards and keeping track of the counts without risking any of his own money in negative
situations. It’s a move known as “back counting” and allows him to recognize when one of the games will turn advantageous for players and negative for the house, which is what happens when the shoe of cards becomes rich in 10s and aces.

As one of the games gets good, Jones would normally jump in and play. Instead, he puts cell phone to ear conspicuously. Two buddies of his see that as their signal to hit the table. “Eight o’ clock,” he whispers as they walk past him.

They recognize that the so-called running count of the game is a plus eight. A handy round of division, taking into account the decks of cards that have yet to be dealt, lets them recognize that they are playing with a decent edge.

Making relatively modest bets from $50 to $100, they play until the count deteriorates. Strolling away with a few hundred dollars in profits, the two gamblers, who’ve done their share of time card counting and weathering bad counts, are pretty pleased with how it all went.

“This is definitely the way to play,” one says to the other. “It’s nice to not be at a disadvantage.”

They are both smart enough to know that call-ins are nothing new. Less obvious is that Jones, who basically did it as a favor, does not even approve of playing in this way—that is, with one person counting the cards and another playing them.

Made famous by the notorious MIT blackjack team, it’s a style in which spotters count cards, bet small and signal in the so-called big player (or BP). The BP then slams down large wagers and does not appear to have been card counting. It’s a great way to play, except that casinos are completely wise to it. “I’m not a huge fan of team play,” Jones says. “Having two or three spotters and a BP is inefficient. You wind up with only 60 percent of your expected value and you really don’t want to be caught collaborating like that. They will kick you all out, put you all together and notify other casinos in the area.”

solo shot

Jones knows. For six years, he was a founding member of the Church Team, a group of card counters who were despised by casino bosses from one end of the United States to the other. As the name implies, the core of the team’s players were serious Christians and Jones even got turned onto blackjack while working as a counselorat Bible camp. It’s where he met Ben Crawford, a fellow Christian who was drawn to the math of blackjack more than he was to the gambling. That’s a good thing when your goal is money and not rushes of adrenaline.

They practiced, fine-tuned their technique and hoped that it would supplement their incomes. “I figured that if I could make $300 or $400 a week, it would be great,” Jones says. “Pretty quickly, though, we realized that the potential was a lot more.”

In short order, he was managing as many as 20 players, dealing with outside investors and divvying up banks of $200,000 after expenses. Through the course of playing, Jones dispelled one of the card-counter myths that has been longstanding. “There is a white whale that if you limit your bet spread”—say, start out betting $25 and never bet more than $250, no matter how advantageous the count becomes—“you will play forever,” he says. “But that’s stupid. It’s only a matter of time before you get caught, even with the small bet spread. I would rather make the money quicker and come back from losses quicker. The goal is not to work twice as hard.”

The Church Team broke up in 2012 and Jones had already turned to teaching, encouraging a form of play that finds ways to make money even as 21st-century casinos strive to make it tough on APs. The house does it by imposing seemingly innocuous rule changes that seriously impact the game. These impingements include dealers hitting soft 17 instead of standing and no longer allowing the re-splitting of aces. Despite those chinks and others, Jones emphasizes that card counting is alive and well for those with the right approach. “The idea,” he says, “is to find your edges where you can and to take advantage of them. They may not always be obvious.”

A day later, in the living room and den of a large house, 20 or so minutes from the Vegas Strip, a half dozen blackjack tables are loaded with players. Dealers shuffle cards and chips get wagered. Though this may resemble an illegal gambling club, it is in fact a blackjack intensive being put on by Jones for a couple dozen of his faithful students. They’ve paid $2,999 to attend this bootcamp where they can either finish learning the basics of card counting or else hone their advanced games. The dealers, of course, are instructors who make at least some of their incomes from playing blackjack in the aggressive manner that Jones prescribes.

There are seminars on bet-spreads (make it gigantic), camouflage and cover (use as little of it as possible) and ways to maximize expected value in the game. Regarding that one, Jones emphasizes that for 21st-century hustlers, not just any casino will do. While past generations of blackjack pros found their edges by deploying exotic counts, Jones does it by recognizing what constitutes an advantageous game today. “We just use the old-fashioned High-Low system,” he says with a shrug. “I’d rather focus on fast dealers than using brain-numbing systems.”

Aided by a PowerPoint demonstration, he compares two players: the one who patronizes a casino where employees are cordial, the driving distance is short and his friends all go, versus the one who looks for fast dealers, better rules and clueless pitbosses who overlook the large bet-spreads that he emphasizes. The latter is so important that it is worth playing games with lower limits as long as the minimum bets are rock bottom.

Playing professor before a class of pupils sprawled around the living room, Jones asks, “Which has more EV [expected value]? Would it be a game where you can spread from $1 to $200 or $100 to $300?”

With dollar-signs in their eyes, students in the room tend to figure that it’s $100 to $300. Jones shakes his head. “Actually, $1 to $200 is better,” he says. “Don’t forget. Our goal here is not to play blackjack. It’s to generate EV.”

That night, Jones throws a party at the pool house of the home he’s renting for the seminar. Munchkin is there and so are fellow casino assassins Tommy Highland, Eddie Teams and a woman known as Miss Brown. It’s the kind of event where casino security guys would love to snag a few snapshots. And that leads to a question about casino surveillance crews getting sharper and their high-tech tools getting better.

Doesn’t that make card counting more difficult? “The cat and mouse game continues,” says Jones. “So we’ve had to up our game. They have better surveillance and better facial recognition. But it’s not to the point where you still can’t make six-figures by counting cards.”

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